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The XX Files - 4.12.06

The Mommy Crap


The Mommy Crap

Although the media keeps hammering away at the idea --- and some may enjoy imagining a catfight --- there aren't any Mommy Wars. Sorry to disappoint you. The news from the reproductive front is that there are no bonbon-flinging, manicured, stay-at-home mothers screeching "neglectful bitch" at briefcase-wielding full-time working mothers who are, in turn, slashing soccer moms' minivan tires.

The term Mommy Wars, coined in the 80's, has resurfaced once again, this time as the unfortunate title of a book of thoughtful essays about the challenges of motherhood. Even the author of the book, Leslie Morgan Steiner, admitted recently in that the title was chosen for the punch it packs rather than as a reflection of the book's contents.

If there is a mommy war anywhere, it is inside each one of us. Though I've heard very few snide comments from either side of the so-called Mommy Wars, I've heard enough mothers beating themselves up about the choices they've made to launch a thousand therapy practices.

Mothers typically have so much internal conflict that discussions about the topic are often sotto voce. Heads tipped toward each other over a stolen moment at a coffee shop, they look like terrorists furtively plotting the next move.

"I'd rather be at work than at home. Am I a bad mother?" You may hear a full-time working mother whisper furtively.

"I want a job," some at-home mothers confess. "The kids are older now, and it's time I get my life back!"

Or: "I actually love being at home. I used to have a big job, but now I'm happy. Is there something wrong with me?"

Society's bizarre mythification of motherhood doesn't make it any easier to take care of your kids and get your work done. The phrase Mommy Wars is just the tip of the iceberg. The newest moniker, Mommy Party, is not, as I had hoped, an event at a Plato's Retreat kind of place where dozens of scantily clad young men --- and, okay, throw in a few young women, too, since it's just a fantasy --- serve at the pleasure of mothers.

Mommy Party is a term used to sum up a small trend among Democratic women who are fed up with the status quo and are running in the midterm elections. Weirdly, this denigrating term invokes a kind of socially responsible slate of issues that any civilized society should embrace. How did we get to the point where violence, health care, and the environment are topics relegated only to women with reproductive capabilities?

It's not just cutesy phrases using "Mommy" as the operative word that obfuscate the real issues surrounding parenthood. (And God help me, don't get me started on the updated MILF term "Yummy Mommy." This Americanization of the British "Yummy Mummy" denotes a mother who is --- gasp! --- actually attractive.) Also annoying are the reams of studies that show conflicting data about women's work habits and the media's inevitably shrill response.

For example, the study finds: more mothers are staying home than ever. The media trumpets: a return to the oppressive 1950's! The study finds: more women are returning to work than ever. The media barks: babies left by the side of the road!

My favorites are the perennial studies posing the question: how much time do men spend helping at home? Any child, dirty pair of socks, or houseplant can tell you the answer to this. Those university grants would be better diverted from stupid studies and divvied up among researchers with children to pay for housekeepers and take-out.

Recently I heard an analysis of work/life trends among female workers that actually rings true. After four decades of growth of women entering the workforce --- hitting its peak of 77 percent in 2000 --- the rate seems to have hit a plateau, a recent New York Times article reports. In part, this may be due to a slowdown in hiring nationally and the falling off of women's wages during the past five years.

But significantly, researchers say, it seems that women may have hit the limit in terms of the time that they can squeeze out of the day. Suzanne Bianchi, a sociologist at the University of Maryland quoted in the NYT, says for decades women have been paring down their household tasks with time-saving devices, ingenuity, and, yes, even a bit of help from hubby.

There's only so much compressing, though, before something has to give. What'll it be? Day care drop-off and pick-up? Housework? Doctor's visits? Taking care of elderly parents or a special-needs child? Commuting? Or the freakin' endless round of sports, music, and religion carpools?

Some working women steal precious sleep hours to get it all done: full-time working mothers get 3.6 fewer hours of sleep a week than mothers who don't work full time. This crunch explains why, though not working now, a lot of mothers express the desire to return to work but can't manage to do so.

No wonder so many mothers are at war with themselves. Because there are no easy answers, nearly every solution comes at a price: guilt, exhaustion, worry. Even moments of pleasure are examined --- is it okay to put my job before my family? Am I weird for enjoying being a stay-at-home mom?

You can be sure most working dads and at-home dads don't beat themselves up about the choices they've made. This raises key questions. Why do mothers feel ambivalent? What's the deal with all the self-reproach? And, most importantly, where can I find that rockin' Mommy Party I've heard so much about?